Older Americans Face New Coronavirus Risk; Robocall Scams (Reader Forum)


As the coronavirus pandemic has evolved and new data emerges, we know COVID-19 poses a risk to everyone regardless of age and gender. That said, the health risk to older adults is high: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report eight out of 10 coronavirus deaths in the US have occurred in adults 65 and older, writes BILL VERSEN.

Communicating the health risks of COVID-19 to older Americans and their family members is priority number one. But sadly, the risks don’t end there: scammers historically seize on chaos that health crises cause by trying to fleece senior citizens out of their money and personal information.

Already, we’ve seen a spike in robocalls targeting older Americans with promises of fake cures, testing kits, masks, stimulus checks and other services. In March, our own analysis tracked a 3M scam circulating with tens of thousands of calls — primarily to Los Angeles phone numbers — offering a coronavirus safety and medical kit.

The AARP Helpline has also reported coronavirus-related scams that include texts that offer “rapid screening” for the disease, but include a link that will download malware (malicious software). The Helpline is also tracking a sad twist on grandparent scams, where “grandchildren” purport to be racing to get tested because they had a fever and chills and got pulled over for speeding and need money to get out of jail. As AARP’s director of Fraud Victim Support and its fraud helpline, Amy Nofziger rightly notes, “Scammers know that most of us are home right now and already under some amount of stress. So, they will use this opportunity to victimize you.”

Of course, financial scams targeting older Americans long precede COVID-19: Seniors lose an estimated US$2.9 billion annually from financial exploitation, according to the Senate Special Committee on Aging. But the coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm of risk for seniors: fear, misinformation and confusion. US consumers have already lost nearly US$6 million to coronavirus-related fraud this year, according to complaints amassed by the Federal Trade Commission.

In January 2020, Transaction Network Services (TNS) commissioned a comprehensive survey of seniors aged 55-80 to help determine who is getting scammed, why they are getting scammed, and what can be done about it to prevent more seniors from being financially impacted. The stakes are high: 53 per cent of seniors we surveyed agreed that robocallers tried to scam them out of personal information in 2019; and nearly as many (47%) said robocallers tried to scam them out of money in 2019.

Protecting seniors from financial risk posed by robocall and robotext scams requires more aggressive action across the entire ecosystem involved in robocall protection and oversight. Three areas in particular demand industry, carrier and government attention in the weeks and months ahead.

Expand scam awareness

The volume of robocalls older Americans receive is relentless: Eighty-nine percent of seniors receive at least one robocall per week, while more than half (56%) receive at least seven robocalls per week according to the TNS survey.

At a high–level seniors are fully aware that robocalls exist and that there is a difference between nuisance calls and higher-risk robocalls seeking to obtain their money and personal information. But seniors still lack awareness of specific scams in circulation – which strongly suggests that institutions which are frequently spoofed — such as banks and healthcare providers — must become far more aggressive in getting scam information to their customers/subscribers in a timely fashion.

Forty-five per cent of seniors claim they have received a healthcare-related scam call, while only 21 per cent reported that their healthcare provider has sent them information on robocall scams. Similar discrepancies exist within financial institutions: only 36 per cent of seniors claim to have received information from their bank or financial institution related to avoiding nefarious scams.

The role of banks, healthcare providers and government agencies becomes even more critical during a health crisis like coronavirus. These organizations need to over-communicate on scams early and often; they can’t leave it up to seniors to figure out if the call about a self-test kit is real, whether they need to pay a fee to the IRS to receive a stimulus check, update their Medicare information, or provide their credit card information for a free Netflix account.

Expand technology awareness

While Improving awareness of scams is the first half of the battle, the second half is ensuring older Americans know that there is technology and tools available to help, how to get them and how to use them.

Broadening consumer adoption of robocall blocking and filtering apps can prevent scammers from even getting seniors to answer the phone. The 65+ demographic still use landline phones: The percentage of adults living with only wireless telephones decreases as age increases beyond 35 years: 65.7 per cent for those 35–44; 50.7 per cent for those 45–64; and 29.2 per cent for those 65 and over. So, seniors are being targeted by robocallers on home and mobile phones.

Better awareness of current scams will help, but technology must fill the gap. After all, prior to the onset of the pandemic, more than half of older Americans surveyed said they have been targeted by each of the following robocall scams: qualifying for a product or program (lower credit card rate, etc.), winning something (free trip, prize, gift card), computer support, IRS/taxes, money making opportunities, and social security angles.

Coronavirus is already changing the scam profile, with scams so numerous and evolving so rapidly that all Americans — not just seniors — struggle to separate fact from fiction.

According to the TNS survey, only 34 per cent of respondents are aware that their telephone carrier offers a robocall protection app – a strong signal to telecom and Over-The-Top (OTT) app providers that the state of awareness and usage of these apps is low. Consequently, only one-quarter of seniors confirmed they use a robocall blocking app from their carrier, while only 13 per cent of respondents use a robocall blocking app from a source other than their carrier.

Expand the time horizon

Alerting seniors to current scams is valuable, but by the time word is out, it may be too late. Service providers and enforcement agencies must also anticipate upcoming event triggers so that individuals are fully prepared before robocallers strike.

A textbook example of this is the upcoming 2020 Presidential election and ongoing state primaries. TNS data not only show massive increases in robocall volume leading up to each of the Democratic primaries that took place in February and March, but we also tracked the most popular scams, which suggests robocallers will try and seize on voter confusion around postponed primary dates due to coronavirus.

TNS compared state-level robocall volume for the full week before the primary date to robocall volume in an average week and found nearly 7x increases in several states. One robocall scam sought to cause confusion over the date of the Texas state primary, with a San Antonio-based number placing over 75,000 calls during a condensed period of time.

Consumers need a better understanding of what campaigns, candidates and political groups can and can’t do when it comes to these calls and texts to mobile and landline phones. Doing so, red flags can be raised if robocallers use the coronavirus pandemic to trick voters into donations to political causes and campaigns.

While an estimated 106 billion unwanted robocalls were placed in the US in 2019 (about 325 robocalls per person), there are signs robocall volume might have peaked. Government, carrier and industry actions are starting to bear fruit. These efforts, in combination with increased awareness and education efforts to protect targeted seniors, will help ensure that the health threat posed by coronavirus don’t become a financial threat as well.

  • Versen is Chief Product Officer at Transaction Network Services.

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